China unsettles Taiwan

Beijing is using the disastrous withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan to further unsettle Taipei. Can the island still rely on the USA?

Washington as a criminal against human rights, as a heartless occupier, chaos-monger and Pinocchio with a long nose: The Chinese state media have been reporting with relish on the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. With pleasure also with gloating caricatures. When it became clear how serious the situation in Kabul is, the ultra-national Global Times published yet another drawing. On it, the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen is being pointed in the right direction by a bald eagle, the heraldic animal of the United States. The president, without realizing it, is running toward a deep hole.

The withdrawal, the commentary on the cartoon says, shocked many in Asia. But it is Taiwan that is most dependent on Washington’s protection, and the fear in Taipei is now reportedly correspondingly great. Other Chinese media quickly picked up on this thesis. Afghanistan was the last evidence of the end of the American claim to leadership in the world. Allies and partners like Taiwan will no longer be able to rely on the country in the future, was the unanimous opinion of commentators. “I wonder if this is an omen for Taiwan?” asked the Global Times.

A few days later, the Chinese People’s Army held military exercises in close proximity to Taiwan hab. In response to external interference and provocations by independence forces, the army explained. A portal of the state-run Xinhua news agency announced that Beijing was continuing to increase its combat readiness. In the past three months, the armed forces had conducted nearly 40 exercises in the region – also to deter foreign forces.

The situation in Afghanistan and the commitments to Taiwan are, and Chinese commentators themselves are likely to know this at best, hardly comparable; most of the supposed analogies seem harebrained. The United States and Taiwan have maintained close relations since the civil war, governed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Support for the island is uncontroversial in Washington on a bipartisan basis. In recent years, the U.S. has further strengthened it. Nevertheless, the threat to the small island state 160 kilometers off the coast of China is greater today than ever. And that also has to do with Afghanistan.

The tone has changed under Xi Jinping

Taiwan and China have been separated since the end of the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, the Communists prevailed over rival nationalists and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. The defeated opponents fled to Taiwan and formed their own government there. In the past 70 years, relations have been marked by repeated crises and conflicts, but there has never been a direct military confrontation. For the longest time, a military takeover of the island was more of a fantasy than a concrete scenario. That is changing.

Until a few years ago, Beijing was still propagating peaceful reunification, with the Chinese Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong serving as a possible model. Both states maintained relatively good relations, and economic exchange was close. But under State and Party leader Xi Jinping, the tone has changed.

China’s President Xi Jinping has issued a clear goal: In 2017, he said reunification was an “irrevocable prerequisite” to complete the country’s resurgence as a world power. Two years later, he openly threatened Taiwan. The situation should not be passed from one generation to the next. Reunification must come, he said, by “any means necessary.” Even if some observers point out that Xi has never named an exact date, he seems more impatient than his predecessors.

The consequences are felt by the Taiwanese every day. Chinese fighter jets permanently penetrate Taiwanese airspace. The military threatening gestures are accompanied by cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and election interference the likes of which democracy has never experienced before. In February, the Reuters news agency documented armies of dredging vessels removing the sand around Taiwan’s Matsu Islands piece by piece. The embrace tactic has turned into an attempt to exhaust the Taiwanese by any means necessary. Experts have long since spoken of a conflict bordering on war.

The balance of power has shifted

To that end, Beijing has stepped up its efforts to isolate the country diplomatically. Over the past 25 years, China has persuaded more than a dozen countries to cut their official ties with Taipei. Only 15 states that recognize Taiwan remain. Even the Federal Republic is not risking its business relations with Beijing to support democracy. In the pandemic, this meant that Taiwan, despite its great need, could not participate in the World Health Organization’s general meetings-not even as an assessor.

All of this has little to do with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Beijing’s reaction, however, shows a danger. For a long time, no one in China’s capital might have seriously expected to win a military conflict with Taiwan. But the balance of power in the region has shifted. Many Chinese commentators seem convinced these days that U.S. intervention no longer seems at all certain. So far, threats against Taiwan have been a cheap tool to rally the population behind them. The greatest danger to peace in the region may be that Beijing begins to believe its own words.